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The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

1967, Heinemann

2004, Persephone Books Ltd

"Utterly compelling,” said the note attached to my gift copy (thank you, Sue!) of Hilda Bernstein’s account of the events surrounding the 1963 Rivonia Trial in South Africa. “It’s a domestic story, a quiet thriller and a window into another society.”

The book also provides insight into the courage and clarity of purpose needed to fight oppression. a burning acid that flows through every vein. (322)

The Bernstein’s Dilemma

Hilda and husband Rusty Bernstein were journalists and members of the resistance movement against apartheid in South Africa. The book revolves around the extremely stressful decision the Bernsteins had to make: should we leave the country in the face of danger to our lives or stay to support the fight that means everything to us?

Hilda Bernstein

Bernstein explains how the situation deteriorated in South Africa during the time of apartheid, when it became dangerous to oppose the government. In 1963, a censorship bill resulted in the closing of independent newspapers, limiting not just political but also cultural freedom.

Culture had become an enemy, as it was once for Germany, and the enemy had to be suppressed and destroyed. The poet is dangerous – his words break through barriers of race and language; the artist is dangerous – his brush and pencil reflect what exists around him and create commentaries on his life and times. (83)

Many members of the opposition decided to leave in the face of growing dangers. What was the point of staying if it was impossible to protest?

Courage and Clarity of Purpose

Hilda and her husband wanted to stay, in spite of the disapproval of friends and family who thought it was wrong to put themselves and their children in danger.

Robbens Island Prison
Rusty Bernstein

I do what I think is right from my point of view…Just by staying, even shut up in my own home, I achieve something; I don’t give way before I am forced to, I don’t voluntarily throw in the sponge. That’s exactly what the Government wants – it wants to be rid of all its critics; and I don’t see why I should co-operate with them.

– Rusty Bernstein (97)

The Bernsteins' friend and lawyer, Bram Fischer, also showed this type of moral courage when Rusty was accused, along with Nelson Mandela and several others, of sabotage against the government. He gave up social status and a promising future “that were his for the taking” in order to defend his friends because among his many qualities was a complete and undeviating honesty that compelled him to do what he believed to be right, regardless of any personal difficulties. (183)

The 2017 film Bram Fischer (also entitled An Act of Defiance) tells the story of his role in the trial.

The Rivonia Trial: No sacrifice too great

The Rivonia Trial was important because, although the accused were facing life in prison or even death, it was really apartheid itself which was on trial. (185)

In his testimony, Nelson Mandela explained the price he was prepared to pay for freedom:

The fight of the African people is…against two features which are entrenched by legislation which we seek to have repealed. These features are poverty and lack of human dignity.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (243-5)

Listen to part of Mandela's speech here.

After receiving a guilty verdict, Nelson Mandela announced he would under no circumstances appeal the decision, even if it was a death sentence. He wanted to inspire his followers “with the belief that no sacrifice is too great in the battle for freedom.” (279)

Here are some pictures of Nelson Mandela.

No Word in Vain

The trial brought recognition from across the world. This supported the accused and made those in support of the State doubt. “No word or deed from people of other countries has been lost or in vain.” ( 275)

Too late to speak up

The suppression got worse and more and more people were being detained under the 90-day law which permitted arrests for any reason. Moderates who had thought they could wait or not speak out, started getting arrested too... the respectable people, the moderates, had turned away because we were red – or because we were black. If you have been a silent witness, it is too late when your turn comes to cry protest. (296)

Right or Wrong?

For the Bernstein’s, the decision of whether to leave for safety or stay in danger in South Africa was heartrending. But then, Hilda made a discovery: single course of conduct is necessarily absolutely correct. It was the unresolved problem that had torn me in two – for the children’s sake, must I not leave? For the sake of all else, must I not stay? ...When I faced the fact that there was no clear solution, and never could be, the agony of trying to make a choice subsided. (231)

STOP! Spoiler Alert!

Reader if you are still with me, you are approaching a spoiler alert zone: Did the Bernstein’s ultimately stay or go? If you don't want to know, stop here.

African women demonstrate in front of the Law Courts in Pretoria, 16 June 1964, after the verdict of the Rivonia trial, in which eight men, among them anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress (ANC) member Nelson Mandela, were sentenced to life imprisonment. The eight men were accused of conspiracy, sabotage and treason. Photograph: Getty Images
Pretoria, after Mandela and seven others are sentenced to life in prison at the Rivonia trial, June 1964

From the Afterword

Hilda, in exile in London:

I had undergone a change in my own personality, from someone who always discussed decisions with others, and relied massively on Rusty’s opinions and advice, to someone who no longer accepted anyone’s attitudes except my own. At last I had achieved a sense of female independence that had been partly theoretical in the past. This was disturbing…and made me often feel at odds in situations that I no longer accepted as wisdom from those I thought knew more than I did…

Arriving in England, 1964

In the 1960s my political allegiances came to a climax when the Soviet Union invaded what was then Czechoslovakia. When the ANC (African National Congress) group in exile…chose to endorse the invasion, I decided to make a clean break. This led to a midnight political fight with Rusty, in which I felt so strongly and so personally that, had we not had multiple economic problems and the needs of our dependent children, would have resulted in me leaving him. (384-5)


Bernstein wrote several other books, including these two which tempt me:

Death is Part of the Process

The Rift: The Exile Experience of South Africans (this one appears difficult to find)

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1 Comment

Mar 18, 2021

This book looks really interesting! I haven't read any white South African authors apart from Gordimer and Coetzee.

How did the ANC's ties to the communist party come about? I always kind of assumed it was another instance of the US Cold War policy of supporting any government, even dictatorial, as long as they were anti-communist.

I know conservatives are trying to rewrite Reagan's role in supporting apartheid by saying that even though he vetoed economic sanctions and put the ANC on the terrorist watch list, he was in fact secretly moving to influence South African government to ease segregationist laws. He paid lip-service to the idea, but I don't think he really cared at all, as long as SA…

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